What If You Owned Everything

Desire, part 3

You could live at Downton Abbey!
The previous post presented one thought experiment. Here's a second thought experiment:

Suppose you awoke tomorrow morning to find yourself the only human on Earth. Space aliens have spirited everyone else away, leaving only you. There’s enough food in cans and deep freezes to ensure you a lifetime of plenty to eat -- and the orchards will continue to bear fruit in season, and let’s say that electricity and plumbing somehow continue to work without people maintaining them. At the gas pump, you can swipe your credit card to dispense gasoline, but of course you never get the bill.

You now, essentially, own everything. You can take any car, live in any house. You can stroll into the most expensive fashion boutiques and pick out any clothes. You can drive down to Washington, DC if you want to, get the Hope diamond out of the Smithsonian, and wear it around.

At first, perhaps, you might do some of these things: live in a palace, wear the most expensive clothing, a Rolex watch, sip the most expensive wines, drive around in an Italian sportscar or a Rolls Royce picking up the greatest art works from museums to hang in your palace.

I think you’d fairly quickly tire of all this, though, don’t you? Before long you’d be back in a smaller house: cozier, easier to keep clean. You’d wear any old comfortable thing, or stroll around in pajamas all day. If that.

What this shows us, again, is how much impact other people have on our desires. We dress, choose a house, a car, a wristwatch with other people in mind. We spend large percentages of whatever we have to project an image calculated to gain the admiration of other people – or, better yet, their envy. To finance all this, we might spend our adult life in a job we hate – pretending to love it, because, after all, it’s not very admirable to be stuck in a job you hate. Status and social position are very powerful desires.

Arthur Schopenhauer, a 19th-century German philosopher, wrote that
“almost all our sufferings spring from having to do with other people....The [Greek philosophers known as the] Cynics renounced all private property in order to attain the bliss of having nothing to trouble them; and to renounce society with the same object is the wisest thing [one] can do.”
Our desires are like an headstrong five-year-old inside our psyche: a child who “never tires of whining, whose whining can’t be avoided” (Irvine).

We are like the parents who give-in, who find that the only way life will be tolerable is to give the child what it wants most of the time. Good parenting, though, we know, while it does mean saying ‘yes,’ a lot, also means standing fast on ‘no,’ sometimes – for the sake of the child’s and the family’s long-term good. And, often, it involves skillful negotiated substitution:
"No, you can’t have that candy bar now. You’ve already had one today. I want to respect that you are hungry. I hear that, and I share your concern about that. We do have fruit available. And, you may have another candy bar tomorrow.”
Or we bargain:
“Tell you what, if you’ll clean up your room and empty all the trashcans in the house, you can have the candy bar.”
Learning to wisely live with our desires is a lot like learning to wisely parent a child. To get good at it means getting good at recognizing when indulging is unwise, and, in those cases, getting good at using substitution and bargaining with ourselves.

For many adults, that whining inner child is whining for more success – which means recognition by others of accomplishment.
“Success is very much like a drug: it makes you feel good; you don’t know what you are missing until you experience it; once you experience it, you want more; and in your attempts to recapture that first high, you will have to resort to ever bigger ‘doses.’ And if success is like a drug, some drugs are like success: a cocaine high, [as I understand], very much resembles the rush of success.” (Irvine)
We are built to crave that drug of success: we are born to be addicted to it. Yet, it is a never-ending treadmill – and it never allows us to be satisfied, content with our life. We are hijacked by desires many of which will not improve our lives. Denying and repressing them just makes them stronger. Noticing and looking at them, though, weakens them. Many times, in the light of conscious attention, they simply vanish.

Some years ago a friend of mine discovered one day that she thought it would be really cool to own a hummer – one of those tank-like vehicles that were unaccountably popular for a while. I was appalled, but tried not to show it -- tried to be nonjudgmental -- as she told me about it. After a week of dragging her friends around to showrooms to gaze lovingly at these beasts, some of those friends were able, gently, to muse with her about where that desire was coming from. When she carefully examined it – with an open curiosity about where it might have come from -- it just vanished. Not all our desires will do that, and we wouldn’t want them to. But some of them will.

Gaining liberation from the desires that don’t make our life better takes some time, some effort, some work. In the end, though, it will take less time, effort, and work, than pouring our lives into the desire treadmill that never satisfies. As the philosopher William Irvine argues:
“If we like what the Zen Buddhists have to say about mastering desire, we might want to spend hours in silent meditation. If we like what the Amish say, we might want to join an Amish community (if they will have us). If we like what the Stoic philosophers say, we might want to spend time studying their writings. But having said this, I should add that the time and effort we spend trying to master desire are probably considerably less than the time and effort we will expend if we instead capitulate to our desires and spend our days, as so many people do, working incessantly to fulfill whatever desires float into our head.” (On Desire 8).
There’s another desire in there – so often buried under the constant scream of various other day-to-day desire – and that’s why, I think, we come to worship on Sunday morning, whether we quite consciously know it or not.

We probably understand, cognitively, that the path to happiness, well-being, contentment is not to have what we want but to want what we have. To really do that, though -- to want all and only what one has -- is a rare thing. To perceive sacred mystery in what we have right here, to catch a whiff of the holiness of life, helps us get to that place of wanting just what we have.

Maybe you’re a single parent who had a particularly frazzled week. Your child had a sore throat this week, which made you late for work, where the boss scolded you, and you were so grumpy you started an argument with a co-worker. Now it’s Sunday morning, and, rather against the odds, you have managed to make it to worship – hoping that it will somehow help you hold together the competing demands on your life. Your minister has given you some things to think about: some of it mildly disturbing (Maybe my coworkers are making more than me. Am I only three spontaneous desires away from a Trappist monastery?); some of it mildly amusing (imagining wearing the Hope diamond around -- in my pajamas); some of it potentially helpful (I can negotiate and bargain with my own desires the way a parent does with a child. I can stop and investigate the nature of my desires and where they might be coming from.)

And at the end he reminds you of what you know:

Life is shot through with sacred mystery. Your frazzled days of rush and frustration are holy, even at the moments of highest stress.

The best thing about desire is that it energizes us to engage with this wonderful, wonderful world. The worst thing about desire is that its constant screaming obscures from us the wonder of what we have.

Standing in the place of wonder, of love for just what is, a new and peaceful strength comes to us. Desires arise, then, and do not so instantly seize control, but await our assessment: Is that really going to make my life better? If so, OK. If not, is there another way to address the deeper need that desire came from?

To open to the presence of holiness all around us is our quietest, greatest, most important yet most easily ignored, desire. May we not ignore it.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Desire"
See also:
Part 1: Streetcars Named Desire
Part 2: Desire, Hope, Status

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